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Jansen van Vuuren
Top ten gap year ideas to inspire you

The images in this article were taken pre-COVID-19.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already convinced that a gap year is for you. 

If you’re confused about what it is you’re actually supposed to do with 365 days of absolute freedom, read more about taking a gap year. You’ll find a list of top ten gap year ideas after this. 

What to do during a gap year?

The reason most people take a gap year is because they’re not sure what’s next. For most people, the first time they’re given the space to look at what they really want out of life and their career is during a gap year.

While school is good at teaching us specific things like how to read and how to solve for x, we have to find our own way to learn about ourselves.

For some people, it might be easier to follow in the footsteps of our friends, family, or even celebrity role models.

Breaking away from the group-mind of high school can be exhilarating, but also absolutely terrifying. A gap year is a chance to determine your personal and professional growth according to your own wishes and standards. 


Working to advance gender equality is one of the goals you could have for your gap year.


This then is the best place to start with your own desires and ambitions. What are those secret passions you’ve been putting off to make the honour roll or impress scouts in the audience? 

What is that exciting idea nagging at the edge of your mind? Maybe you’re an athlete who has always dreamt of writing songs like Alfie in “Riverdale”?

Or maybe you’re a straight-A maths whiz who can’t shake the idea of learning to dance salsa in Costa Rica. Maybe you want to use all the free time you can get to find out how big you could grow your brand using YouTube, Instagram, or another platform.

Or you could even be a budding entrepreneur who has always wanted to see how business works in low- and middle-income nations.

Whatever your passion, a gap year gives you the time to explore an old or new obsession that doesn’t necessarily need to match your current social identity or the career path you have in mind.

Further reading: How to take a gap year: before, during, and after


Participants enjoy a game drive while taking a gap year.


Below you’ll find a list of the most popular things students choose to do during their gap year, along with the most exciting destinations to do them in. We hope it helps you kickstart your gap year brainstorming session so that you’ll have a better idea of the opportunities actually out there.

Remember that you don’t need to choose only one option. Most people actually do many things during their time off

And don’t be discouraged if you can’t take a full year to explore all possibilities. You can use the months between high school and college as a kind of “gap summer” if there are financial constraints, or you’re an athlete who needs to get back home in time to start your training schedule.

Further reading: Why I regret not taking a gap year

1) Travel: Join a gap year program abroad in Peru

A group of volunteers on a gap year travel program.

The Maras salt ponds are just one of the many incredible sites to see in Peru.

There’s a reason going abroad is a gap year cliché – because it’s awesome! Getting the chance to experience first-hand scenes you’ve only ever gawked at online, making new friends, and trying foods you might not have heard of before — it’s a wonder that anyone even comes back home after their gap year travelling abroad.

Further reading: Nine inspirational travel and volunteering quotes

The real question is: where do you go? How can anyone be expected to make up their mind when there are literally hundreds of amazing destinations to choose from? 

Why not follow Malia Obama’s footsteps and choose Peru.

After just a minute or two reading up on things to do in Peru, you’ll notice that there’s an endless list of exciting places to go and things to see. 


A GVI participant enjoys the view of Machu Picchu while taking a gap year.


Peru has something for everyone: adventure sports for the adrenaline junkie, historical sites for the intellectual, unique habitats for the nature lover, unfamiliar flavours for the gourmand, and extraordinary scenery for those looking to capture something special for Instagram

Don’t be surprised if you end up spending your entire gap year backpacking through the land of the Incas.

With GVI you can travel to five continents around the world, including Africa, Asia, South America, Australasia and Europe. You can visit 15 countries – South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, Ghana, Seychelles, India, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Fiji, Greece, and, of course, Peru.

If you are still undecided, maybe book a chat with one of our enrolment managers and ask them about their favourite GVI location.


GVI participants wade into the water while on a gap year program in Mexico.


Further reading: Six ways to deepen your travel experiences

If you’re having trouble convincing your parents that travelling is a great idea, remind them that it helps you develop skills like confidence, resilience, financial planning and cross-cultural communication. These skills will impress both colleges and future employers. 

Many parents are often persuaded by the fact that young adults who travel learn to cope better with daily challenges upon their return.

2) Make an impact: Join a gap year volunteer program in Ghana

Gap year volunteer programs are a good way to immerse yourself in cultures.

If you’re looking for a meaningful way to spend your gap year, our gender equality program in Ghana might be a great fit.

There is probably no better way to truly immerse yourself in another culture than by volunteering. Working in communities gives you insight into local customs that resort-hopping tourists, backpackers and even many local people will never have. 

Speaking face-to-face to local persons who struggle to overcome challenges in their daily lives will teach you things about their country that cannot be found in any book, news report, photo, or even anyone else’s travel story.  

Volunteering is an excellent way for you to learn about and connect with what you truly care about. This is essential because, ideally, you’d like to end your gap year with a clearer idea of what matters to you so that you can build a truly fulfilling career out of this passion.

Further reading: What can volunteering abroad teach me that school can’t?


Looking for gap year ideas? Why not help with a computer literacy program in Ghana.


While exploring new ways of life and discovering what is meaningful to you, you’ll be learning how to communicate with people who don’t share your language or customs. 

You will collaborate with other volunteers in your team and acquire important abilities that both admissions officers and hiring managers covet, allowing you to maximise the value of your gap year for future employment.

If you’re worried about not being able to keep old friends or make new ones during your gap year, a volunteer abroad program is perfect for you. 

You’ll get to meet young people from all around the world who are also outside of their comfort zones and social cliques. This will allow you to get to know each other in a casual setting.

Further reading: Why volunteer?


Ghanaian women work on textiles as part of a GVI skills development program. Getting involved in programs like these is one of our top gap year ideas.


One of our most exciting service programs abroad is in Ghana where our volunteers work with local women’s empowerment initiatives. What volunteers are directly involved in depends on the needs of our in-country partners at the time.

Some of the things they’ve done in the past include conducting workshops that create discussion around gender stereotypes and domestic violence, helping women increase their knowledge of children’s development and preventative health, and teaching women valuable professional skills like how to work with technology and budgets.

Further reading: 16 interesting facts about Ghana

Another way to make an impact in Africa is to join our gender equality program in Cape Town, South Africa.

If you are looking for a great volunteer vacation destination outside Africa, why not choose one of our other community development projects in India, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Peru, Mexico, Costa Rica and Fiji.

3) Teach: Join a gap year teaching program in Cambodia

gap year teaching program

Undecided about where to teach during your gap year? We suggest Cambodia – a country with a fascinating cultural heritage and a ton of unique things to see and do.

Teaching abroad isn’t only for those who have the drive to become an inspiring educator. It’s a way to get used to a work environment and develop professional skills before going into your chosen field.

Further reading: Why I regret not taking a gap year

Teaching is a particularly great choice for young adults looking to develop their leadership skills.

What better way to learn how to be a kind and assertive leader than by keeping a group of young students engaged in mathematics when they can’t wait for the break-time bell to ring? 

You will also be learning how to communicate effectively with people who don’t necessarily understand your language. This is a skill employers earmark as a top priority when looking to hire a manager.

You’ll also master a bunch of other skills while teaching abroad, like confidence, punctuality, prioritisation, conflict resolution, resilience, on-the-spot problem solving, self-sufficiency, and the ability to turn negative feedback into positive outcomes.  


Teach novice Buddhist monks during your gap year abroad.


Further reading: Which gap year program is best for my career?

If you think teaching overseas during your gap year might be for you, why not join our teaching program in Cambodia? You’ll be stationed in Kampong Cham, a town situated on the Mekong River. 

You’ll work with novice Buddhist monks and children from the local community to improve their English literacy skills. 

This program is a great way to explore Cambodia’s many unique sights, like the Royal Palace or the National Museum of Cambodia. In your free time, you can travel north to explore the grand Angkor Wat temple complex. 


Seeing the Ankor Wat temple at sunrise is one of the best things to do when you take a gap year.


Further reading: Nine of the best things to do In Cambodia

We have many other volunteer teaching opportunities available in South Africa, Ghana, India, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Fiji, and Peru

Students who are more serious about furthering their career in education can join our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certified six-month education internships available in Laos, Thailand or Costa Rica.

4) Learn a language: Join a gap year Spanish program in Mexico

Volunteer on a gap year language program.

Speak to one of our enrolment managers to add Spanish classes to one of our Latin America teaching programs.

Becoming totally fluent in another language is one of the great passion projects you can actually accomplish during your gap year. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to say “I love you” or even just “Pass the salt” in French, Spanish or Japanese? 

Learning another language opens up a new world of self-expression, friendships, and new films, books, and music to binge on.

An additional language also looks good on your resume. You can work with more clients, team members and business partners. It will also help you speed up your decision making and improve your overall thinking abilities too.


A GVI participant makes the most of their gap year by teaching English to children in Mexico.


The very best way to learn a language fast is through the so-called “immersion technique”. This just means you’ll be thrown into the deep end when it comes to trying to go about your daily life using the new language. 

You’ll be presented with real-life situations that you have to respond to without using any English. This helps you connect meaningfully with the new language and learn in a more natural way. 

As is to be expected, language immersion is best achieved in-country, because you will  always see, hear and use the language you’d like to learn.  

Further reading: Ten tips to make language learning fun

If you are unsure which language to start with, why not choose Spanish? It’s the second most widely spoken language across the globe, more so than English, and is classified as one of the less time-consuming languages to learn.


Several of GVI's gap year programs focus on teaching and community development workshops.


Join our child development and teaching program in Mexico to teach children English while they teach you Spanish. If you feel you need extra support you can also always choose to attend additional Spanish language classes

If you would like to go further afield than Mexico to develop your Spanish proficiency you can also join our teaching programs in Costa Rica or Peru.

Further reading: Six reasons you need to volunteer abroad in Mexico

If you are interested in a more laid-back approach to language learning you might want to think about joining our other community development projects around the world. You will be able to proceed at your own pace just by engaging with local people. 

You could learn isiXhosa in South Africa, learn Twi in Ghana, French in Seychelles, Hindi in India, Lao in Laos, Thai in Thailand, Khmer in Cambodia, Fijian in Fiji, or Greek in Greece.

5) Get work experience: Complete a gap year internship in South Africa

Volunteer on a women's empowerment program in Cape Town.


Take another leaf out of Malia Obama’s book and complete an internship in a vocational field you’d like to explore. There are many benefits to this choice. 

You’ll find out if this is really the type of work for you before you commit fully to it and you’ll gain some work experience that will serve you well wherever you might end up. You can even have some fun while working. 

Taking your internship abroad allows you to balance your need to keep your career on track while still having the opportunity to see and experience a lot of other new things at the same time.

We offer a women’s empowerment program in Cape Town, South Africa. You can join the program along with a group of volunteers from all around the world.


A woman takes part in empowerment workshops facilitaties by gap year volunteers.


You will support women to access equal opportunities such as education, jobs and public health. These empowerment initiatives are achieved through skills development workshops to improve employability, and in teaching women about preventive health and prenatal care.

Further reading: Your guide to GVI’s international business internships

We also offer internships for students looking to gain experience in international development, wildlife or marine conservation, education, and public health. The minimum duration of our internships is four weeks and there are also options for three and six-month programs.

6) Prepare for medical school: Join a public health program in South Africa

Have you always thought you’d make a great doctor, nurse, paramedic or therapist? Do you have a genuine desire to help people feel better? 

Then you probably already know that getting certified as any kind of healthcare professional can be a challenge. It’s a good idea to be sure you enjoy the work before you decide that this will be the path to pursue.

Further reading: Best GVI summer 2019 internships abroad for college students


Learners take part in sports programs to improve their health and well-being. Programs are lead by volunteers, many of whom are on their gap year.


Our public health internships are beneficial for students interested in health administration, occupational therapy, and nutrition. Those interested in other fields like dentistry and emergency response can also benefit. 

No prior medical experience is necessary before signing up to our health programs, since public health volunteers do not perform any medical procedures or diagnostic work, as per our policy on medical volunteering

To ensure the safety of all participants involved in the program, volunteer participants will be required to complete a DPS check, Police Clearance, or a National Background Check where necessary, and to comply with the policy and all times.

This means our programs are ideal for students looking to take a meaningful break before medical school or even right after graduating high school.

Further reading: How to choose the right internship to boost your career


A GVI particpant leads a women's empowerment session while on a gap year program.


On our public health internship in South Africa, you’ll work with women and children. You will support healthy lifestyles through women’s empowerment classes that help women and girls engage in women’s health topics and general well-being. 

You will also guide children in sports during physical education lessons, and help the children understand the health benefits of physical exercise. 

If sports isn’t your passion, why not learn more about preventative health by helping our teams in Fiji organise preventative health, hygiene, nutrition and first aid workshops in underserved communities?

7) Join a gap year study abroad program in Thailand

Elephant conservation on a gap year study abroad program.

Spend your days with Asian elephants and earn credits at the same time. Who wouldn’t want to join?


Okay, we know what you’re thinking, “Study during my gap year? That’s exactly what I’m trying to get away from!’”

But hear us out. These aren’t your average classroom courses where you’re expected to memorise a ton of things that you struggle to connect to the real world. 

You will have immersive learning experiences designed to give you first-hand insight into issues you may have only read about in textbooks. You can also gain credits while you’re at it.

One of our most beloved project destinations is Huay Pakoot village in northern Thailand. Here students get to learn about the unique relationship local Karen people share with the elephants native to this forested region.


Gap year ideas in Thailand include opportunities to volunteer with elephants in Chiang Mai.


They work with traditional elephant keepers, to ensure that their elephants are well cared for. Volunteers also work with other villagers to grow their handicraft businesses. 

Our six-week study abroad course offered here involves students working with local people so that they acquire the knowledge and skills needed to run a sustainable elephant conservation project. 

Further reading: The inside scoop: Eight reasons why you should volunteer in Thailand

If you are interested in the interconnectedness between community development and conservation efforts, but you’re unsure about Thailand, you can always choose our community development program in Costa Rica. Students on this program will be based in Quepos, a town known as the gateway to Costa Rica’s famous Manuel Antonio National Park.


While taking a gap year, GVI participants enjoy the town of Quepos and its surrounds.


Further reading: Four reasons why the environment needs elephants

Students with more of an interest in gender studies can join our gender equality and education program in Cape Town, South Africa. You’ll be based in Gordon’s Bay, a small seaside town about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, and work with girls and women in the local township to learn how education initiatives can help them gain more financial and social freedom.

8) Explore artistic pursuits: Join a gap year program in Costa Rica

A volunteer on a gap year art program.


Perhaps you would like to develop your creative side? Did you know that having a creative outlet helps improve performance for professionals in just about any field? 

You can use your gap year to do this. Explore your artistic side, and even if you do not consider this a career option, it will provide short-term satisfaction as well as long-term productivity benefits.  

Further reading: Six unusual animals to look out for in Costa Rica

For those of you who have focused on perfecting your art throughout your school years, you have probably dreamt of being successful. Maybe you dreamt about landing a prestigious grant or fellowship? 


A gap year volunteer reads to children in Costa Rica.


Maybe you dreamt about being hired by a big company? Often young creatives focus so much on this goal, but be careful of losing sight of your one-of-a-kind personality. 

A great way to reclaim this part of yourself is by taking a break, reflecting and doing something a little different. You’ll return with a new perspective and this fresh new spirit will show in your work.  

Volunteer with children in Costa Rica and explore your creative side. Assist with sports to increase gross motor skills, and work on art, crafts. and music to develop fine motor skills. Lead group activities like games to help develop social skills.

Assist children express themselves creatively in these activities and learn how artistic expression can inspire development. 

9) Go on an adventure: Join a gap year diving program in Fiji

A volunteer scuba diving during a gap year adventure program.

Student overboard! Explore underwater wonderlands on your year off.


All gap years are adventures in one way or another. If none of the other options we’ve listed cut it for an adrenaline junkie like yourself, keep reading.

While professional diving isn’t technically considered an extreme sport, mastering technical skills that allow you to explore landscapes most people will never see, appeals to most people with an adventurous spirit.

Further reading: Top five reasons why you should take a volunteer adventure to Fiji

We run several professional diving programs around the world, including ones in Fiji, Seychelles, and Mexico. With over 300 tropical islands to explore, water the colour of clear topaz and magnificent cave structures, Fiji lives up to nearly everyone’s idea of bliss.

As a marine conservation volunteer in Fiji, you’ll learn how to dive, and you will have the opportunity to earn a PADI certificate in the process. You will also assist in collecting data to help in the protection of Indian Ocean fish and coral populations.


Favourite gap year ideas involve coral reef surveying in Fiji.


Further reading: Top five reasons to volunteer in Seychelles

If aren’t keen on getting your toes wet, why not choose one of our environmental conservation projects in Costa Rica, South Africa, Thailand, Seychelles or Greece

You’ll spend the weekdays trekking through lush rainforests, wide stretches of untouched beaches, African savannahs as far as the eye can see, or rugged island mountain trails. These activities will depend on your chosen destination.

You will also carry out wildlife surveys, beach cleans, camera trap setups and reforestation projects. 

On the weekends you can choose from a variety of sports like white water rafting if you’re in Costa Rica, hot air balloon safaris if you’ve chosen to travel to South Africa, water skiing along Thailand’s coast, or climbing rock faces in Seychelles.  

In addition, if you’d rather work on one of our community development initiatives there is also an option to enjoy the outdoors on the weekend. You can trek up to Everest base camp in Nepal or the Inca Trail in Peru, go surfing in Ghana, dirt bike in Cambodia, or kayak in Laos.

10) Work with animals: Join a turtle conservation gap year program in Greece

Volunteers during their gap year participating in animal programs.

These little hatchlings are waddling down to the safety of the ocean via a mini highway dug by GVI volunteers in Greece. Too cute!


If you are passionate about caring for animals then you might want to do a conservation program. Learning about animals in a lecture hall just isn’t the same as being around them every day.

Taking time during your gap year to work with animals is not only food for the soul, but if you are interested in pursuing veterinary science as a career, it will also help you work on your “bedside manner”, as it were.

Further reading: Ten of the best organisations to follow that help endangered animals

If you’d like to tour Europe on your gap year, why not join our turtle conservation project in Greece? You’ll get to sleep and wake up on a Mediterranean beach with other volunteers during the warm summer months, conducting sunset and night-time surveys to find, measure and tag mother turtles. 


A participant walks along the beach while on a gap year program in Greece.


In the mornings, you’ll walk the beach again to record the number of nests that appeared overnight and put barriers in place to protect the eggs from predators. The highlight of this project is, of course, seeing little turtle hatchlings making it to the sea.

Further reading: Six animal species and how they are affected by climate change

While in Greece you’ll also get the chance to explore some of the ancient sites nearby like the legendary temple of Apollo. Once your time on project ends why not extend your trip and take some time to backpack through neighbouring countries like Turkey, Italy, France or Spain? 

If you want to go somewhere else, you can join one of our other sea turtle conservation programs around the world, in Costa Rica, along the coast of Thailand, and Seychelles

It is important to remember that turtle nesting behaviour is seasonal, which means these programs are only available at specific times of year.

Did you take a gap year and have some inspirational stories you’d like to share with other students? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter. We’d love to hear from you.

Are you planning on taking a gap year in 2021? 

Browse GVI’s gap year ideas for the upcoming year, and join one of the best gap year programs abroad today.